Death of Newspaper Critics Feels Like a Metaphor for the Industry
A journalist friend of mine last week recalled a quote about the newspaper industry I found funny: No other industry defines its premiere product -- quality investigative news and substantive hard news reporting -- as broccoli to be choked down by a readership which doesn't get it.
I found myself thinking of that quote while reading this piece about the disappearing newspaper TV critic at major regional daily newspapers. It dovetails with stories here and here about the vanishing movie critic at major dailies. And let's not forget this wordy but comprehensive piece by Eric Alterman at the New Yorker about newspapers.
I am obvious the most biased of biased sources. But both these trends seem bassackwards as the broccoli=serious news attitude. There is obviously loads of interest in movies, movie stars, TV, TV actors and the evolution of modern media. So why are newspapers firing, laying off, reassigning or buying out the people who have covered these beats for years?
Reason #1: It saves money -- True enough, most people in these beats are older employees with big paychecks. But look at what happened at the Tampa Tribune when they eliminated longtime movie critic Bob Ross. After trying to develop a squad of average people to do his job, they've turned to TV critic Walt Belcher, asking him to step in and review movies or write trend pieces about films and stage shows, proving it isn't so easy to replace a critic with wire copy as it might seem.
Reason #2: Readers don't care about the content -- This is the toughest argument to gauge. While it's true there isn't a clear cause and effect relationship between critics and audience, critics can do a lot more than evaluate entertainment product. We explain, verify, outline trends, dig up news, start conversations and amplify them. How can you measure that in a poll or box office receipts?
Reason #3: It's old fashioned -- This is argument I understand least. At a time when digital technology is revolutionizing media, why would you eliminate the person whose job involves tracking all of that? If critics are writing boring stuff, then editors should be helping them energize their work, not figuring out how to make them take a buyout. One look at the websites started by pushed-out TV crits Ed Bark in Dallas and David Bianculli in New York shows how little the newspapers which employed them actually allowed these guys to do. In these times, cutting a pop culture arts critic feels like eliminating the cops reporter's job because stories out of the police department are boring. Shouldn't you just improve the performance of your cops reporter?
Yeah, I've got a vested interest in this one. But I wouldn't have spent nearly 20 years honing my abilities as a TV/media critic if I didn't think it was also an important beat to cover well. Hope more newspaper editors start believing that, too...